In what ways was the Cuban Missile Crisis a political crisis, a diplomatic crisis, and/or a military crisis?

Essay, 2015

9 Pages, Grade: 65



The Crisis as Military Confrontation

The Crisis as Diplomatic Confrontation

The Crisis as Political Confrontation



In what ways was the Cuban Missile Crisis a political crisis, a diplomatic crisis, and/or a military crisis?

When thinking about Cold War confrontation, academic analysis has traditionally treated superpower confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union within the prism of the international system. As advanced by Waltz (1979), the nature of the bipolar international system conditioned the behavior of the two powers, particularly given both sides’ nuclear capabilities. Neorealist framings of this type have, to a large extent, dominated attempts to explain the nature of the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. Having stationed nuclear missiles in Cuba, the Soviet Union engaged the US in superpower confrontation. The analyses tend to focus very much on the bipolar nature of the conflict, emphasizing strategy considerations and diplomatic management on both sides. However, an analysis focused on the political dimensions of the conflict can add to scholarly analysis by highlighting the role played by Cuba and its idiosyncratic relationship with the United States, in addition to illuminating the importance of domestic American politics as a decision-making factor. This essay will thus first examine the framing of the Cuban Missile Crisis in terms of military strategy and diplomatic management, before turning to how the crisis can be understood in political terms.

The Crisis as Military Confrontation

One aspect about the Cuban Missile Crisis which immediately stands out to the observer is the presence of nuclear warheads. As suggested by the term itself, the missile crisis gained its salience from the fact that both superpowers were armed with the capabilities to ensure mutual destruction. In the counterfactual, the absence of nuclear weapons would likely have produced a very different outcome, given the much lower stakes for both sides. Thus, it is essential to pay attention to military strategy to understand how the crisis came close to nuclear annihilation.

The distance between Miami and Havana amounts to just over 350 kilometers. From a strategic perspective, this is obviously significant. Militarily, the presence of medium-range missiles just off of its coast would have considerably altered the United States’ strategic position, and significantly changed its own national security considerations. The United States had enjoyed the strategic advantage of having bases in Europe in the immediate vicinity of Soviet territory, while the Soviet Union was not able to threaten US territory directly.

Secondly, from a strategy perspective, it should be noted that the US nuclear capacity vastly outstripped the Soviet Union. Its nuclear arsenal was several times the size of what the Soviet state could muster. It could be argued that nuclear superiority thus informed decision-making within the crisis context. However, it appears unclear whether this circumstance effectively made any difference strategically. Then Defense Secretary Robert McNamara recalls Kennedy’s unwillingness to “‘go to war over worthless missiles in Turkey’” (Kennedy quoted in Trachtenberg, 1985: 146), referring to the Jupiter type nuclear missiles stationed there at the time.

Thirdly, we can think about the crisis in terms of the military conflict that might have been. With hindsight, it appears almost inconceivable that the US would ever have engaged in the conflict militarily. However, military options such as airstrikes and an outright invasion of Cuba were very much on the table, and aggressively pushed by members of the Executive Committee (Cyr, 2013: 19). Yet, this exercise points out the shortcomings of thinking about the crisis in military terms. Ultimately, there was very little military exchange between the parties involved. Military capabilities certainly informed decisions and conditioned courses of action. However, military strategy can only be seen as one aspect to the crisis, and not as a defining factor. The following section will thus focus on a diplomatic understanding of the missile crisis.

The Crisis as Diplomatic Confrontation

The Cuban Missile Crisis has traditionally served as an example to highlight high-stakes diplomacy. The narrative is especially compelling given the colorful figures involved. Given that foreign policy is often associated with executive decision-making and diplomatic strategy, the roles played by John F. Kennedy and Nikita Krushchev have received extensive attention. Some have, for example, referred to the Cuban Missile Crisis as the “Gettysburg of the Cold War” (Walt W. Rostow[1] in Collier and Horowitz, 1984: 378), which, implicitly connotes Kennedy as on par with Abraham Lincoln as one of the great American statesmen by virtue of his crisis management.

Dealmaking was a central component to the crisis’ resolution. Nathan identifies a particularly crucial deal:

“At the core of Kennedy's strategy was a deal: the United States pledged to remove its missiles from Turkey within six months in exchange for the Soviet Union's withdrawal of its nuclear forces from Cuba.” (2012)

In essence, then, we see a certain quid pro quo dynamic. However, what is interesting about the US-Soviet negotiation process are the channels through which communication was carried out. The circumstance that the sides took great pains to avoid having to negotiate openly seems to suggest that there were political agendas that took prevalence over immediate crisis resolution. The secrecy and intermediacy of the negotiations allowed the sides to maintain flexibility without having to publically commit to specific courses of action.


[1] Member of Kennedy administration at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis

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In what ways was the Cuban Missile Crisis a political crisis, a diplomatic crisis, and/or a military crisis?
Oxford University  (Department of International Development)
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cuban, missile, crisis
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Tim Pfefferle (Author), 2015, In what ways was the Cuban Missile Crisis a political crisis, a diplomatic crisis, and/or a military crisis?, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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